Monday, April 18, 2011

Escape from the Planet of the Apes


After the last movie ended with everyone being wiped out by a nuclear bomb, I wasn't sure how they could make a sequel. After having seen it, I'm not even sure if it is. In many ways, Escape from the Planet of the Apes is actually a prequel.

The movie begins with a spaceship crashed in the ocean. For a minute you think, "Oh great. They sent yet another rescue mission." But as the helicopters circle and the military arrives on the beach, you see that they are all human. They are surprised to see the ship, but not alarmed, as they assume it is one of the two they sent up. After it is pulled to shore and the astronauts removed, they open their helmets to reveal-- Apes! Roll title and opening credits.

I kinda liked this opening for a number of reasons. It got the big reveal/reversal out of the way immediately instead of dragging it out; it gave the apes a chance to see their world from a different view; and most importantly, it drastically reduced the budget since they only had to bother with three ape costumes. I always appreciate creative ways to stay in budget (if done well).

Now, the science that got them there, well, that's some really bogus creative screenwriting. Apparently, coinciding with the events of the second movie, the Apes recovered Taylor's sunken ship, repaired it, and flew it into orbit. While up there, they witnessed the atomic blast which destroyed the Apearth, and somehow sent them back in time. There are just so many things wrong with that story, not least being the fact that the Apes in both previous movies were at a pre-industrial technology level. But, if I learned anything from the last movie, it was that you have to let go of the science to enjoy the movie.

But I do want to put in a note about the chronology, which is also totally messed up. In PotA, Taylor's ship was launched in 1979 (10 years in the future from when the film was made). He crashed on Apearth 2,000 years in the future. However, when the Apes go back, they land in 1973 (approximately current to when the film was made). So technically, they arrived before Taylor left. However, everyone in the film acts as if Taylor left several years before. I admit this is a minor nit to pick, but it bothered me. Most likely it was a budgetary decision-- they couldn't afford to dress up L.A. to look like it was 10 years in the future.

Anyway, back to the story. The three apes are our old friends Cornelius and Zira, plus Milo who dies rather quickly. For a while they hide their ability to speak, which provides some cute reversals of their treatment of Taylor in PotA. Thankfully, this doesn't last too long, and our heroes befriend their scientist captors. Here's where the movie gets weird.

There's a scene where the Apes are put before a tribunal of some sort. I don't really know why. No one seems astounded by the fact that these are Apes from space, or Apes from the future; they're just stuck on them being talking apes. Maybe the writers had aspirations for drama or philosophy here, but they abandoned them. The Apes get in some good one-liners, and suddenly the movie turns into a wacky, fish-out-of-water story.

The Apes become minor celebrities. They're put up in a fancy hotel and taken shopping while groovy music plays. Cornelius gets a tailored suit while Zira has models fashion outfits for her. Zira even goes to some sort of Women's Lib meeting! Ah, the '70's.

Inevitably, things turn sour. Dr. Hasslein, an excessively distrustful scientist, discovers that they are from our future. He comes to the conclusion that by coming back to the past, they are the ones who create the future, and therefore must be sterilized before they can breed. Tragically, Zira is already pregnant. Suddenly, the movie turns rather dark.

The last 30 minutes of the movie are surprisingly good and suspenseful. Our Ape heroes must flee Hasslein and the evil government men. With the aid of the good scientists, they make friends with a circus owner, Armando (Ricardo Montalban!). Zira gives birth to her baby, very near to a circus chimpanzee who has also recently given birth.

The Ape-hunt is relentless, however, and they must flee this temporary sanctuary. They hide out in an abandoned shipyard (cheap location shooting, I guess) until cornered by the bad guys. Hasslein finds Zira and shoots her in the back. She drops her baby, which he then shoots repeatedly. Cornelius shoots and kills him, but not before he is also shot and takes a bad fall. Zira throws her own dead baby into the water before collapsing beside Cornelius. A helicopter shot pulls away, Cornelius and Zira huddling, prone and bleeding, Hasslein and baby floating face-down in the water. The end?

No. We switch to a scene of Armando's circus being broken down in order to move on to the next town. We see the mother chimpanzee holding her baby, only (you guessed it) it is actually Zira's baby, Milo. The camera zooms in on the baby as it looks up to his mother and says, "Mama, Mama" over and over. Fade to black, roll credits.

A pretty intense ending, especially for a movie that seemed light-hearted for most of it. Something I should compliment all of the Apes movie on (so far) is the dramatic ending, and I don't mean the shocking reversal. In PotA, after Taylor finds the Stature of Liberty, the screen fades to black but the sound of the surf goes on. No music, just sound during the credits. In Beneath PotA, after Taylor sets off the bomb, the screen goes white. No sound, just credits. Here, it's the same effect: the haunting repetition of "Mama" over a black screen, then fading to silence as the credits roll. Good stuff.

I also like the title of this movie. Going in, I thought maybe a third crew of astronauts found their way to Apearth and the movie would be about them getting away. Instead, it appears to be about the Apes' escape from their doomed planet, which actually happens before the movie even starts. But really, the title refers to Hasslein, the mean scientist. He does everything in his power to try to prevent Apearth from ever happening. There's even a philosophical discussion he has with the President of the United States about this very thing. Sure, we would want to kill Hitler, but would you be able to kill Hitler as a baby? Would you kill his mother before he was born? (Terminator, anyone?) From that perspective, you can understand why Hasslein sees himself as a hero, not a villain.

One more quick aside, I really was impressed by this movie's portrayal of the president as a calm, rational human being. So often in movies of this period (and beyond), the president is over the top gung-ho about something, usually war or patriotism. Here, he's one of the most reasonable people in the film.

Halfway into this film, I was dreading watching the next two. By the end, I could hardly wait.


Pete the Brit said...

I'm glad you enjoyed this's one of my faves. :D Did you see there is a new Planet of the Apes movie coming out this summer? Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

Gregarius said...

Amazingly, I just found out about the new Apes movie a couple of days ago. I had no idea they were doing one when I started this marathon.

It actually looks pretty good, but I'll save most of my comments on that for the end of the marathon recap.


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